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Eric Palante dies at Dakar Rally

SALTA, Argentina -- Belgian motorcycle rider Eric Palante and two spectators died during the Dakar Rally, organizers said Friday.

Organizers said they went out looking for the 50-year-old Palante after he failed to finish the fifth stage, which most riders completed Thursday, and found his body along the route.

The cause of death was being investigated, and officials offered few details.

This was Palante's 11th Dakar Rally, according to an event biography, which said he would have turned 51 on Jan. 21. It said his goal was to win the amateur trophy for motorbikes.

"He knew the race very well, and over the years his enthusiastic but serious approach had made him one of the pillars of the event," organizers said in a statement.

Organizers said they received no alert from Palante.

Reports on Palante's website on Thursday morning said that he had injured his hand in an accident after his bike had to be towed the previous day. After overnight repairs to his bike and treatment on his hand, he set off again for the fifth stage.

"A very long stage of suffering is ahead," his website said.

Two other rally-related deaths were reported earlier Friday. Police said two people following the race died Thursday when their vehicle overturned in rough terrain in northern Argentina.

Police identified the pair on Friday as Agustin Ignacio Mina, 19, and Daniel Eduardo Ambrosio, 51.

Police said the crash took place Thursday at the end of the fifth stage. Police said Mina was covering the rally for a motor racing magazine, and they identified Ambrosio as a fan of motor sports.

Nani Roma of Spain kept the overall lead in cars despite finishing sixth in the stage, and fellow Spaniard Marc Coma stayed on top in bikes after taking second on the stage from Tucuman to Salta in northern Argentina.

Roma has a large lead of 30 minutes, 30 seconds over Orlando Terranova of Argentina, and 40:54 ahead of 11-time winner Stephane Peterhansel.

Coma leads fellow Spaniard Joan Barreda Bort by 42:17 and is an hour ahead of Alain Duclos of France.

The Dakar, raced over rugged terrain in difficult-to-control areas, often produces fatalities. Last year, French motorcyclist Thomas Bourgin was killed in a collision with a Chilean police car. Two fans also died in a collision between a support vehicle and two taxis.

The Dakar began Sunday in Rosario, Argentina, and ends Jan. 18 in Valapariso, Chile. This is the sixth straight year it has been held in South America.

Saturday in a rest day.